Tue, Apr 05, 2011 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Disaster prevention specialist highlights importance of early warning systems

By Shelley Shan  /  Staff Reporter

The nation’s ability to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes is once again a hot-button topic after the devastation in Japan caused by a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

Yukio Fujinawa, who once worked at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention in Japan, said Taiwanese authorities must work toward providing information as quickly as possible as time is needed to save lives, no matter how short it may be.

“The question should be what one can do when he or she only has two or three seconds,” Fujinawa said.

Using the undersea earthquake along the east coast of Japan as an example, Fujinawa said that Miyagi and other prefectures along the coast all had at least 15 seconds to react after the earthquake was first detected.

Sendai City, which was only 130km from the epicenter, had about 20 seconds, he said, while people in Tokyo had more than 40 seconds to seek safety.

Fujinawa and other researchers spent seven years developing the earthquake early warning (EEW) system, which initially received ¥2 billion (US$23.79 million) in funding from the Japanese government. The system also piqued the curiosity of the private sector, which invested billions more in developing EEW-related products and services, he said.

Whenever the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) detects an earthquake — usually for those above magnitude 5 — the system first transmits the information to multiple information processors before it is broadcast to the general public, Fujinawa said.

Thanks to the EEW system, Fujinawa said people in Japan could see the earthquake alert on the NHK television station or on their computers, adding that the entire system was automated and requires no manual data entry.

The information delivered to users includes the location of the epicenter, the magnitude and the time at which the earthquake struck.

For the March 11 quake, Fujinawa said the system transmitted the information to subscribers within 12 seconds after the first seismic wave was detected. The general public received the information over television and radio services within 15 seconds, he said.

The EEW system’s false-alarm rate has dropped from 10 percent in 2007 to about 1 percent now, he said.

Using statistics gathered following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Fujinawa said researchers have sought to determine whether the system could have helped reduce the number of casualties.

Residents in Mianyang City, about 93km from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, had about 29 seconds before they were hit by the secondary wave of the earthquake.

“Had residents used this 29-second window of opportunity, the number of people who perished could have been drastically reduced from 21,935 to 877,” Fujinawa said.

Lai Wen-chi (賴文基), deputy director of Disaster Prevention Research Center at National Cheng Kung University, said the experience in Japan underscored the urgent need for a disaster prevention industry.

“Taiwan has the ability to provide an earthquake warning within 10 seconds, which could potentially be one of the fastest in the world. However, that information is only shared among government agencies,” Lai said.

“Translating earthquake-related information into disaster prevention messages used by the public should not be the remit of the government alone,” he said.

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